Friday, April 30, 2010

Landing at Natal by basket

In 1882 Donald Currie's Castle Line began regular mail services as far as Durban (i.e. not terminating at Cape Town) and by 1887 both the rival companies, Union and Castle, were providing this service from England to Durban.
These mail ships still had to anchor outside the port in the 'roads' or 'roadstead'. This was due to the existence of the Bar, a sandbank across the entrance to the Bay of Natal, and a significant obstacle in the way of development of the harbour. It was a matter of vital concern because without a port the Colony could not have continued its existence - trade, immigration etc would be impossible.
The depth of water over the Bar depended on certain factors - the quantity of sand or silt built up, onshore winds, currents, tidal scour. During the history of the port, several harbour engineers were employed to remedy the situation, with varying degrees of success. 
For passengers, it meant that at the end of a long voyage and with Natal in sight from the deck of their ship, they could have a long wait before they disembarked on dry land. Not only that, but the process of disembarkation was far from easy. It took place in the outer anchorage - by basket. This contraption was made of wicker, with a door in the side through which the passengers would enter. The door would be secured on the outside and the basket winched up then lowered to the deck of the waiting tender (small ship for ferrying passengers in and out of the port). When the passengers emerged from the basket, it would go back for another group. Approximately eight to ten people could be carried each journey, depending on their size.
It wasn't an exercise for the squeamish, particularly in a strong wind and with a choppy sea causing the tender to bob up and down, not necessarily synchronised with the movements of the larger incoming vessel.
Passengers entering the basket at Durban, postcard 1901

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Settler Ancestors from Europe to Natal in the 1880s

While the majority of settlers to Natal continued to be of British origin, other countries also explored the prospect of Natal as a destination for emigrants. In 1880 the Natal Government was petitioned on the topic of Danish emigration. A couple of years earlier, Otto Witt and a business partner, Fristedt, intended introducing immigrants from Sweden into Natal, and requested land on which to locate them.

However, the next major group of immigrants from Europe were Norwegians and they arrived in 1882, founding a settlement at Marburg on the south coast of Natal between the Umzimkulu and Izotsha Rivers. UPDATE: see further posts on this topic in 2014

For passenger lists of Germans travelling from Hamburg from 1858 to 1883 see Joachim Schubert's exceptionally useful site at  These passengers disembarked at various South African ports.

By 1880, Walter Peace had taken over as Natal Immigration Agent based in London. The Natal Mercury, 19 May 1880 reported the arrival of the URMS African from England after a very good voyage.
She had on board 60 immigrants - 20 men and 10 women and children. The men are carpenters, blacksmiths, farm labourers, engineers, gardeners and joiners, and the women, housekeepers and domestic servants.  We have little doubt that we have to thank Mr Walter Peace ... for such a large and respectable class of immigrants as landed at the Point yesterday. Mr Peace has this year been instrumental in sending out a total  of 200 immigrants. Early yesterday Mr Reid of the Immigration Depot went out in the Union [tug] and boarded the African for the purpose of looking after those who were arriving here under the Immigration Act and in a short time the Union landed them safely on to the wharf. Some friends of the immigrants were present, but there were some more who found themselves on a foreign land without those who required their services being there to receive them.  For such parties Mr Reid had made preparations by having tents erected on the Market Square for their reception, and it speaks well for the friendship formed by this large body when we mention that in no instance was a poor stranger allowed to enter the tents; those who had found friends kindly looked after their less fortunate fellow passengers, and in a short time they were all distributed throughout the town in boarding-houses. They spoke highly of the treatment they received while coming out. An infant, aged a little over a year, died on the 18th of April. The names of the passengers will be found in our shipping column.

URMS African


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Natal immigration in the 1870s

West St, Durban, 1874

In its Report for the year 1879 (the year of the Anglo-Zulu War) the Natal Land & Immigration Board stated:

'During the first quarter of the year 1879 owing doubtless to the disturbed state of South Africa, only four immigrants arrived in this Colony under the auspices of the Land and Immigration Board. During the latter part of the year however the number of arrivals rapidly increased to a monthly average of nearly 31 souls, the total number during the whole year being 287. In addition to those who arrived, approved applications for 340 more persons were sent to England during the latter half of the year, and of these 72 had arrived up to February 16 1880. The total number of applications received by the Board during 1879 was 300, being 165 in excess of those received in 1878.

In all cases where free passages are granted by the Board the nominee is under engagement of service for a period of not less than one year or more than three years at the rate of wages current in the Colony, according to trade. This arrangement has been found to work very well, so much so that in some cases immigrants who came to the Colony under this system are now in their turn employers of labour introduced in the same manner.

In November last a special agent, Mr J E Methley, proceeded to England, by direction of the Board, to select 32 families to be located on the farm ‘Wilgefontein’ [Willowfountain] purchased by the Board in 1878 for the purpose of forming a special agricultural settlement in the vicinity of Pietermaritzburg. This farm 5 500 acres in extent has been subdivided in the manner specified in Government Notice No 257 of 1878 and it is expected that the immigrants will be located on this settlement in June next.

Several proposals have been received … from Missionary Societies and others with the view of forming German, Norwegian and other settlements.'

The Willowfountain settlers were to arrive on the Nyanza 12 July 1880.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Immigrants to Natal in the 1870s

This photograph shows Field Street, Durban, during the 1870s: the road is unsurfaced and could become a quagmire in the rainy season. Structures vary in size and style. It's still the era of the horse and the horse- or ox-drawn wagon. Dalton's Saddlery, in business from at least a decade earlier, (sign shown in white on the side of the first building at left), would have been kept busy. In fact, George Dalton did so well that in 1872 he opened a branch 'at the Umgeni, adjoining Allen's Ferry Hotel'.

Everything looks peaceful enough, yet the 1870s would prove to be a turbulent decade in Natal's history. The inhabitants were continually fearful of an uprising of local tribes. 1873 brought the much-mishandled Langalibalele incident: in brief, the chief of the AmaHlubi resisted orders from the magistrate to register guns held by the tribesmen and failed to report personally in Pietermaritzburg. This was regarded as rebellion and British troops assisted by Natal volunteers were sent on a punitive expedition to Hlubi territory. Langalibalele (loosely translated, Blazing Sun) escaped but was eventually arrested. In a skirmish at Bushman's River Pass, Major A W Durnford's force lost three Natal Carbineers (one of the them the son of the Colonial Secretary, Erskine) and Durnford received a wound to his arm which made it unusable for the rest of his life (only about six years, as he died on the field of Isandhlwana in 1879). Langalibalele and his sons suffered banishment and imprisonment.

Meanwhile, various political factors, including a boundary dispute with the Transvaal, were causing additional pressure on the Colony of Natal, and would culminate in the outbreak of war in 1879 - now referred to as the Anglo-Zulu War.

Yet Natal continued to be advertised in the press and elsewhere as a suitable prospect for immigrants from overseas. Certain occupations could guarantee a free passage.  The Natal Almanac of 1877, under the heading 'Immigration from Europe' states:
Assisted and free passages are granted only to persons nominated under applications and contracts by residents previously approved by the Protector of Immigrants in the Colony. Assisted passages from Great Britain are in the first instance paid in full by the Natal Government upon the written undertaking of the applicants in the Colony, ratified by their nominees, who ... become responsible for the part payment of the passage money at the rate of 10 pounds sterling for every statute adult, in two equal instalments ... Free passages are granted from the United Kingdom for immigrants of the following classes: Domestic Servants, Farm Labourers, Mechanics viz Engineers, Engine-drivers, Carpenters, Bricklayers, Stonemasons, Blacksmiths, Wheelwrights, Shipbuilders ...

Natal Almanac and Yearly Directory 1877


Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Remembrance: Swires/Gadsden

Maud Alice SWIRES b 18 April 1890, married Sydney Bartle GADSDEN 3 November 1909 at St. Peter's, Pietermaritzburg, Natal.

Maud GADSDEN nee SWIRES with her only son
William Bell GADSDEN,
great grandchild of Captain William BELL

[See post on this blog: 'Remembering a Mariner']

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Remembering a Mariner

Today marks the 141st anniversary of the death of Captain William Bell, Port Captain of Durban, on 10 April, 1869.

Bell was born in the parish of Bowness-on-Solway, Cumberland in 1807 and not, as stated in a number of published works, in Dumfries, Scotland. At the time of his birth his parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Bell, were living in the village of Glasson, one of the tiny hamlets scattered along the edge of the Solway Firth. Their son was baptised in the church of St Michael’s, Bowness; in the churchyard is a large memorial stone to members of the Bell family who lived in this area for generations.

By the 1830s, Bell was at the Cape, commanding the 100 ton schooner Conch, a regular trader along the south-eastern coast of South Africa. He married at Port Elizabeth in June 1838 Mary Anne Caithness. At least thirteen children were born to this couple, twelve surviving to adulthood.

In 1842 the Conch and her commander played a role in the conflict at Port Natal, landing troop reinforcements to raise the siege of the British garrison. This moment was immortalized in a painting by the artist Thomas Baines (seen top right on this page).

Bell was Port Captain at Natal during the 1850s, and was present for the arrival of settler ships of that era, including the ill-fated Minerva which was wrecked at the foot of the Bluff. His signature appears on original passenger lists of the 1850s and 1860s. As a member of the Harbour Board, Bell was closely involved in the on-going development of Durban harbour and the efforts to surmount the difficulties posed by the Bar at the entrance to the Bay, particularly during the time of the pioneering Harbour Engineer, Milne.

During his twenty years in office, Bell was part of all enquiries made into shipwrecks in or near the Port, voicing his opinions with his usual unflinching clarity. He also undertook expeditions along the north-eastern coast, to find and chart other navigable harbours.

An obelisk in his memory stands in West Street Cemetery, Durban.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Tracing British Military Ancestors

Before you start you need to know the ancestor’s name. That may seem blindingly obvious but it’s surprising how many enquiries begin: ‘I’m not sure of his name … but he fought in the Boer War’ (or other conflict).

Preferably you also need to know his regiment. Rank and date of discharge would be helpful.

British Army records for any soldier discharged before 1913 may offer the following information: age, place of birth, age on enlistment, length and location of service, character report and details of appearance, trade or occupation and reason for discharge.

To find this information you’ll need recourse to Service Records held at The National Archives, UK, either visiting TNA yourself or delegating to an experienced military researcher (often the wisest, speediest course). Search TNA’s online catalogue for a start.

The Soldiers Discharge papers for the period 1882-1900 and 1900-1913 are among the Soldiers Documents (attestation and discharge) held at TNA in WO 97. Note that these records do not include men who died while serving. The Soldiers Documents are arranged by date of discharge.

For 1882-1900 and 1900-1913 all Soldiers Discharge papers are filed alphabetically by name.

If your military ancestor was an Officer in the British Army, his career could be traced using the Army Lists. Service records of officers are mainly in WO 76.

If he was in the Imperial Yeomanry, attestation and discharge papers are in WO 128, filed by service number (if you don’t know the number, look at the registers in WO 129). In WO 128 is a roll of officers and NCO’s in the Imperial Yeomanry. WO 129 includes casualty books and a roll of officers in the Imperial Yeomanry who received the Queen’s South Africa Medal.

The Imperial Yeomanry was a force raised in 1899 for service in the Anglo-Boer War. This decision was taken after the battle of Colenso, 15 December 1899, when it became clear that reinforcements were required in South Africa. Among early recruits were thousands who had no previous military experience and received minimal training. The IY was a corps of mounted men, who had to be good riders and marksmen, between the ages of 20 and 35.

At the same time as the formation of the IY, a series of Volunteer Service Companies began to be established. 66 of these Volunteer Service Companies, nearly 8 000 men, would eventually serve in South Africa.

These shouldn’t be confused with the City of London Imperial Volunteers which was a separate regiment.

All except three of the Regular regiments and corps of the British Army of 1899 served in the Anglo-Boer War. There have been confusing changes since that date, many of the regiments having been amalgamated or disbanded, or given new titles.

Regimental museums may be a good source of information. An essential reference work for such addresses is the Family and Local History Handbook published annually in UK.

Official regimental histories can also be helpful.

Retrieving the guns: Ladysmith

Monday, April 5, 2010

Did your Anglo-Boer War ancestor get a medal?

There were two campaign medals issued for soldiers of the British Empire who served during the Anglo-Boer War. They were awarded as follows:

The Queen’s South Africa Medal (QSA): to men who served in the campaign between October 1899 and 22 January 1901 (i.e. date of Queen Victoria’s death). Up to nine bars (or clasps)*, for the Army, could be worn on the medal ribbon and eight bars for the Navy.

The King’s South Africa Medal (KSA): to men who served during or after January 1902. Up to two bars for South Africa 1901 and South Africa 1902 could be worn on the ribbon. The KSA was never issued without the QSA.

Major Darrell Hall in his Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War mentions:

‘Note that clasps were not awarded for defeats. There are clasps, e.g., for Belmont and Modder River, but not for Magersfontein. There are no clasps for Colenso and Spioenkop (or Spion Kop as spelt by the British) but there is one for Tugela Heights. The KSA has no clasps marking actual engagements, but simply South Africa 1901 or South Africa 1902.’  These two clasps were issued for both the KSA and the QSA, as was the clasp Relief of Ladysmith.

The Medal Rolls at TNA, Kew, listing recipients, are held in WO 100/120-130, WO 100/356, WO 100/357. These rolls could be helpful in a search for an ancestor whose unit is not known.

Other awards including the Victoria Cross (for all ranks), the Distinguished Service Order (officers only) the Distinguished Conduct Medal (for other ranks), Long Service and Good Conduct Medal etc are also held at TNA Kew.

It wasn’t until August 1902 that King Edward VII approved the principle of awarding the Victoria Cross posthumously. Prior to that date it was awarded only to soldiers who survived their acts of gallantry.

The Military Cross (for officers) and Military Medal (for other ranks) did not come into being until World War I. At the time of the Anglo-Boer War recognition for gallantry could be awarded in the form of Mentions in Despatches.

Awards to men of the Royal Navy during the Anglo-Boer War are in ADM 171/52-54 at TNA.

There are some published medal rolls available: see further details at South African Military History Museum

*Clasps for QSA include:

Cape Colony
Diamond Hill
Defence of Kimberley
Relief of Kimberley
Defence of Ladysmith
Laing's Nek
Defence of Mafeking
Relief of Mafeking
Modder River
Orange Free State
Tugela Heights

Friday, April 2, 2010

Using NAAIRS to find Anglo-Boer War Ancestors

The South African National Archives and Record Service online index (NAAIRS) at can help when tracing Anglo-Boer ancestors.

The Gravestones database (GEN) on NAAIRS offers memorial inscriptions collected by the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA), some of which refer to casualties of the Anglo-Boer War. A Cemetery Recording Project run by GSSA now offers a series of index CDs (obtainable from the Society) – recently helping me to find an Australian trooper buried in a small graveyard in the Orange Free State.

A search of NAAIRS may reveal an ancestor’s deceased estate file with Death Notice included. Sometimes there are two Death Notices in such files of the Anglo-Boer War era: one filled in briefly at the place of death, by the Adjutant or Medical Officer perhaps, and another notice completed more fully later.

Correspondence in archival files could give information about the next-of-kin: widows or mothers claiming the deceased’s pay or the five pound war gratuity, a seemingly scant return for the supreme sacrifice. A memo mentions a youthful soldier’s only piece of movable property – his horse, ‘killed for food during the Ladysmith siege’.
If your ancestor's regiment is known, it's worth searching NAAIRS for likely references to its name. The combined used of British and South African records, published sources as well as online information, can help in the search for a gentleman in khaki who was, as Kipling said, 'out on active service, wiping something off a slate.'

by Rudyard Kipling

When you've shouted " Rule Britannia," when you've sung " God save the Queen,"
When you've finished killing Kruger with your mouth,
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?
He's an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are great -
But we and Paul must take him as we find him -
He is out on active service, wiping something off a slate
And he's left a lot of little things behind him!
Duke's son - cook's son - son of a hundred kings
(Fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay!)
Each of 'em doing his country's work
(and who's to look after their things?) …  SA Military History Society: various articles by specialists in military history. offers: a history of the KwaZulu Natal town of Ladysmith, the two famous stories of the town, the Siege of Ladysmith and the Relief of Ladysmith; a database of the residents of Ladysmith from its earliest days to around 1900; a database of all known British military personnel who died during the whole of the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. This website was started in 2004 with the objective of making available information on the Anglo Boer War 1899 - 1900.  The site is free to use and has grown over the years so that it currently consists of over 2,300 articles, over 11,000 images and more than 12,500 pages in searchable PDF format.